Almost two weeks after launch (the world servers were ‘switched on’ on the 9th of September) Bungie’s new videogame Destiny has already racked up some impressive numbers. Publisher Activision claims the launch as among the most successful ever, with sales of $325 million. Developer Bungie has been using their website and the games nifty little companion mobile app to keep fans up to date on progress stats: 100 million hours played in the first week; a billion player deaths in The Crucible (Destiny’s PvP mode); average player game session 3 hours, 4 if it’s the weekend… and so on.
The sales figure will be a relief for Activision and Bungie, the publisher has invested a reported half a billion dollars in the development, marketing and support of the game. Bungie walked away from the Xbox exclusive blockbuster Halo franchise to go ‘all in’ on this ambitious game. Launching a new franchise is always slightly risky whatever the calibre of the developer, success out off the gate is never certain (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).
And yet despite the huge sales and demonstrable engagement of gamers in Bungie’s new universe, Destiny has seen lukewarm reviews (interesting given the complaints of the #gamergate brigade that games journalists are in the pocket of publishers) and significant negative social media and forum buzz. It is already being perceived as something of a disappointment in many quarters (there is plenty of rabidly partisan pro-Destiny opinion also).
It is a demonstration of how ridiculous the expectations for Triple-A game titles are that Destiny’s Metacritic rating is actually a perfectly respectable 77/100. Okay that’s less than Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, but it’s still decent. It seems to be tacitly accepted that nothing less than universal acclaim is enough, something stoked by review aggregator sites like Metacritic. This is something that is harming our culture industries a great deal in my opinion, but that is a blog for another day.
I’ve been playing Destiny pretty solidly since release; I even played a crafty session before work one morning which is something I never do. I played the alpha test release and I played the beta, so in fact after installing and booting up the game on my PS4 (yes I know the term ‘booting up’ is redundant and shows my age) I had played through the game’s initial levels at least half a dozen times already. Normally this is a chore even the second time around – as anyone who has ever accidentally deleted their save game 5 hours into an FPS will know – but that wasn’t the case here. In fact I find playing through Destiny’s levels to be – mostly – a joy. If you like racing games or beat-em-ups, is it a chore to play a favourite level or track again? No, in fact you come back again and again. Cards on the table, I kinda love this game.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, you need some explanation of what sort of game Destiny actually is.
The set up for the ‘plot’ is this. In the very near future a manned mission to mars discovers a huge alien artefact called ‘The Traveller’. The alien construct looks like a giant marble and ‘uplifts’ human technology and consciousness, allowing us to expand into the galaxy, tripling our lifespan, and creating a ‘time of miracles’. However, out in the vast darkness beyond the stars an ancient enemy lurks and after three centuries of utopia and discovery it finds us initiating some kind of solar-system-wide apocalypse. Humanity and The Traveller are pushed back into the last human city, fighting a desperate battle against encroaching enemy forces. In this bleak backdrop, ‘ghosts’ (small sentient Rubik’s Cubes with the voice of Peter Dinklage) scour the wastelands of earth resurrecting dead warriors, ‘guardians’ who will stand for The Traveller and fight for humanity’s survival.
That is – as any reader of science fiction will tell you – a pretty hackneyed plot cobbled together from a variety of sources. The Traveller is a bit like the monolith from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001; the notion of an alien intelligence up-lifting a more primitive species can be found in Clarke and David Brin’s Up-lift Saga among many others; other obvious touchstones are Asimov, Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy, and Babylon 5. The game’s art style is pure sixties/seventies SF paperback cover art. It’s absolutely gorgeous and the widescreen vistas of a ruined terrestrial Cosmodrome and various alien landscapes are especially evocative of the work of Chris Foss (not so much of his illustrations for The Joy of Sex mind).
This rather thin story is a framework for what is essentially a first person shooter, although one that is taking place in a persistent online universe. It is perfectly possible to play Destiny as a solo game, although you will see other players speeding past on their own missions and occasionally assisting you in a firefight before fliting off with little more then a wave. The game’s missions are generally variations on template. You start at point A, and must reach point B where there is either a switch to flick initiating a timer and several waves of bad guys, or a boss to fight along with several waves of bad guys. Completing the mission opens up more missions, then more worlds with more missions and so on.
There is a mild RPG element to all this. You choose from one of three classes (Titans are the game’s ‘tanks’, Hunters a rogue/sniper type, and Warlocks the equivalent of a magic class), you get to personalise your avatars appearance (options for three races, male/female, hair styles, the usual). A note of caution, once you reach The Tower, the game’s social hub you will find there are no hairdressers in Destiny, so make sure you pick the right colour of hair dye. By completing missions you level up, open a skills tree for each class with special moves. You can also level up your gear, making weapon and armour choices important. Matching the right weapon to the right armour perk gives you a little boost that is especially important in the PvP modes.
It takes a relatively short amount of time to unlock all the story missions if you charge through them once and on the minimum difficulty settings (higher settings give greater experience rewards), but all the missions are re-playable, and there is a ‘patrol’ mission that gives free access to the entire location with a range of mini missions that can be picked up.
Levelling is greatly boosted by picking up ‘bounties’, persistent targets that when met give further advancement. These come in two types aimed at either PvE missions (Vangard marks), or PvP (Crucible marks). When the player hits the low level cap of 20 (which shouldn’t take long), the levelling system changes radically and a further 10 levels can be gained but only by equipping specialist armour with a ‘light’ level. You still level up skills and weapons independently. Choosing your bounties carefully is key to levelling past 20, as is participation in The Crucible or on Strikes which are more difficult boss missions.
This is a sophisticated system that takes a little getting used to, and the game resolutely refuses to explain it to the player. This is something that has irritated some, but I can’t say it bothered me as I enjoyed figuring it out.
The nuts and bolts of the game’s shooter mechanics are as satisfying as you would expect from the creators of Halo. Weapons are satisfying, have a real tactile kick and crunch to them, and levelling them up brings clear gains. However there are some irritations. You can’t share gear with other players, but you can use a ‘vault’ in the tower to stash gear for your other characters. While the only restriction on the use of weapons is that you have the appropriate level, the armour is class restricted. This is incredibly annoying later in the game. A key carrot that will keep you playing is the promise of rare legendary gear. You get this either by spending special experience points, finding gear dropped by vanquished enemies or as a reward for PvP success (although that is a bit random). Sometimes you don’t get actual gear, but ‘engrams’ which are plans for gear that need to be decrypted in the tower by an NPC character you will want to shotgun in the face very quickly.
Legendary gear is rare in the game, and infuriatingly most ‘legendary’ engrams when decode suddenly turn out to be ordinary gear. Even worse, on the rare occasion a legendary engram translates into a sweet piece of legendary armour, you may find your joy turning to fury when the super-duper helmet you just got isn’t equipable by your class.
It is a little too hard to invite or join the ‘fire team’ of another player if they are not on your friends list. And the super difficult endgame raid requires you to be in a fire team of friends and restricts the matchmaking used elsewhere to allow you to play with random gamers (it also expects you to play through ten hours of game in a single sitting). This seems ridiculously restrictive and I hope will be quickly patched. I get that Bungie want you to make relationships in the game, and then take them into the final raid, but they just haven’t made this as seamless a process as it should be.
A chief disappointment of the game so far has been the minimal plot. There was an expectation that the skeletal narrative shown in the beta would suddenly expand and open up in the full game, and that the player would feel like a foot soldier in an epic space opera. To date, this hasn’t happened.
Part of the problem is that the massive multi-playerness of the game fundamentally breaks attempts to create a coherent narrative. Because levels are replayable, and in fact this is positively encouraged by various bounties that give rewards based on playing through levels with raised difficulty, any story would get stuck in minor feedback loops. There are some cut-scenes to impart story information and these are irritatingly unskippable, but they are pared back to the bone. Destiny presents a post-modern suggestion of an epic story like a colouring-in book then it expects the players to supply the crayons.
The problem is that it hasn’t really set this up properly to happen out of the box, at least not right now. There just isn’t quite enough opportunity for players to interact with each other in a meaningful way. It is hard to imagine anyone staging a wedding in Destiny like they have in World of Warcraft. Although the nifty dance moves executable at a button press mean that a mass rave on Venus is inevitable at some point.
To be honest, there isn’t really a plot in Destiny at all. There is barely more to it than Doom, whether this is as much of a problem as some critics would argue is debatable. I mean how much attention does anyone really pay to the plot in Halo, it’s the bit were you go to make a cup of tea isn’t it? Did anyone really expect Destiny to be Mass Effect?
Bungie have been reticent to call Destiny anything other than their new shooter, and as such it is a pretty good one, getting on for great. What it really is is a terrific virtual paintball environment. But that isn’t very sexy in marketing terms, this it has been slightly miss-sold as something that it isn’t… quite.
Destiny seems to have rather fallen victim to the current obsession with every new partially next-gen gaming IP being a radical break from convention and a reinvention of the wheel. This isn’t that, it takes a number of elements and puts them together in a way that hasn’t been seen on quite this scale on a console but none of it is ‘new’. In fact in many ways Destiny is pleasingly old-school. The sheer number of combatants on screen and the unbroken smooth frame-rate do take one back to the FPS’s of old, the Dooms and Hexans. In particularly frantic battles, the cumulative and overwhelming waves of enemies even evoke Serious Sam. This is a good thing.
The gorgeous environments are not interactive in the way one would expect in a massive open-world sandbox game, and the four main play areas are really combat arenas that can be artificially restricted or opened up according to requirements. Having said that the inky impenetrable blackness of some enemy respawn sites is glaring in its artificiality. Destiny is a beautiful illusion (in other words, Destiny is a game).
It sounds like a cop-out to say that it is too early to make a definitive judgement about Destiny, but it IS too early to say. Granted a game should function out of the box, but this isn’t a broken game, quite the opposite it does what it intends to do brilliantly well. It’s just that some people clearly expected something else (strange given that four million people played the beta).
I look forward to refinements and upcoming DLC, and I expect to be playing this game for months (perhaps longer). But even if this turns out to be the gaming equivalent of a beautiful but hollow Faberge egg, I have already got my money’s worth out of it in terms of gameplay.
Special mention to Martin O’Donnell’s superb score which mixes a full orchestra for stirring John Williams-esque sweep and electronics for tense action sequences. Although the less said about Paul McCartney’s theme song (which plays over the credits) the better.
Note, I played the game on PS4. Find me in The Crucible on PSN as Max_Renn70. I warn you, I really, REALLY suck at it.